I do not want to exaggerate when I say this, but visiting San Miguel de Allende (San Miguel), Mexico, for the first time was magical. This small city is the second colonial city that I am visiting for my practicum about the impact of Western retiree immigration in Latin American cities. San Miguel has a deep history tied to the Mexican revolution, silver trade, and powerful Spanish families, but it’s fascinating how the words of American writer Stirling Dickinson were what attracted Westerners to this baroque city: “There was enough light for me to see the Parish church sticking out of the mist. I thought ‘My God, what a sight! What a place!’ I said to myself at that moment, ‘I’m going to stay here.’”
I share this brief overview of San Miguel’s charm because it illustrates how easy it is to overlook the concerns of the city and the surrounding communities. Look beyond the beautiful architecture and breathtaking views of the highlands and it becomes clear that the city has been operating for outsiders for a couple of decades. While the locals have either been forced to move to the outskirts of the city or leave the area altogether, the economy has largely catered to American and Canadian retirees who desire the amenities and culinary taste of their home countries while wanting that performative element of a more colorful culture. Of course, because of the retiree’s persistence and economic power, they are also the reason why San Miguel has the largest concentration of non-governmental organizations in Mexico, working to solve or mitigate problems related to natural preservation, animal abandonment, children’s vision, water quality, and over a hundred more issues.
Through my qualitative research in San Miguel I have gathered that the presence of retiree immigrants has morphed the social determinants of health for the community in a manner that benefits some while harming others. If you ask any key stakeholder in San Miguel what they think about retiree migration and the effects on the community, they will likely say that the retirees have been the best thing to happen to San Miguel because they have created jobs, have demanded better services, instituted a culture of volunteerism, and have helped San Miguel become one of the most desirable cities to visit in the world. These stakeholders might be government officials, real estate agents, or geriatric specialists, but they often also own other commercial businesses catered to retirees and tourists in general. If you ask people who operate outside of these circles (like a store owner in a predominantly low-income Mexican neighborhood), you will hear how difficult it is to afford living in San Miguel with stagnant wages. Those jobs that the retirees created, like housekeeping and gardening, do not pay enough to maintain families. There are families who owned homes in the center of town for generations and have been offered thousands of dollars to move elsewhere, and so they do, but they move to the outskirts of the city that may or may not have reliable municipal services. With the city’s water quality concerns of high fluoride and arsenic levels—especially in the outskirts of the city where the government must ship well water for distribution—you’re seeing teenagers experiencing early onset osteoporosis and children with developmental delays, among other health concerns.
I feel like there is more to this story than we have the capacity to capture in this exploratory project, and with only one week left in San Miguel, I am hoping there is enough time to properly share the story of the community.